There were many things that felt similar about Chelsea’s performance in North London on Sunday afternoon. Similarities that would have been all too stark for the man in the opposing dugout to Frank Lampard.
Five years ago, Jose Mourinho was the architect of the Blues best away performances against the fellow heavy hitters of England’s top flight. There was a certainty about his Chelsea outfit, a rigidness – an assured sense of control which would unforgivably suffocate the opposition and exploit their biggest weaknesses.
That summary can be used to illustrate the way Chelsea swarmed over their bitter rivals from the first whistle to the last in Sunday’s encounter. This was a hungry, relentless surge by Lampard’s eleven overwhelming Spurs for large periods – forcing them into errors, making them question their instincts. Even before VAR concluded that Son Heung-min deserved a red card in the second half for kicking out at Antonio Rudiger, the hosts looked outnumbered in all areas.
Chelsea’s press had forced Dele Alli to run into blind alleys, retreating to the byline of his side’s penalty box, before hurriedly lashing the ball away from danger. Mourinho’s men looked perplexed and even after a halftime switch, the game was already gone. The clinical edge to Chelsea’s game, the tactical wit of Lampard and the performances of every player in royal blue to better those in white would have been alarming for the Portuguese coach.
For Lampard, this was his greatest hour as a coach so far.
The lack of certainty within Chelsea this season has cost them on many occasions, resulting in some frantic encounters which fell out of their control. Though Lampard’s tone and manner has remained the same since the first outing of the season at Old Trafford.
Whilst there have been some difficult days and poor displays in recent weeks, the 41-year-old always manages to find the right words to stem the tide and refocus the minds.
A free week to prepare for one of the biggest games in the calendar allowed Lampard and his squad the time to find the right answers and work on balancing Chelsea’s eagerness to attack with a solidity at the other end. This was only the Blues fourth clean sheet of the season in the Premier League and all of Harry Kane, Alli, Lucas Moura, Son and Eriksen were unable to ever test Kepa Arrizabalaga enough – thanks to the exemplary performances of Antonio Rudiger, Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori.
By no means did Chelsea’s defensive dominance detract from what was an extremely expressive performance. Seeing a Chelsea side – mostly coached in a counter-attacking style for the majority of the last decade – arrive with a mentality to be more brave, truly shows the change Lampard and his predesscor have worked on the transform the Blues mindset in approaching games.
In “big games” this season its been a similar tale for Lampard prowling the touchline. Missed chances, rued mistakes with some really positive signs to take belief from. However, so far they had left empty handed, looking to learn from their errors for next time.
Against Manchester United, Chelsea were denied by the woodwork twice before being exploited in transitions as the Red Devils surging counter-attacks outdone the Blues. Against Liverpool, small details were the big factor. Mason Mount’s left foot prevented an equaliser after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s bullet free-kick, and a minute later poor marking gave Roberto Firmino a free header. An N’Golo Kante stunner and an improved second half earned Chelsea an applause off the pitch. Away to Manchester City, a thrilling opening 25 minutes which put Chelsea ahead wasn’t enough to stop the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez as Chelsea were narrowly beaten once more.
Willian’s finessed strike into Paulo Gazzaniga’s bottom corner was the catalyst for Chelsea to put their big game hoodoos to bed. The burst of emotion from Lampard when Willian’s penalty rippled the net demonstrated how long a performance like this had been craved, even if we are only in December.
“Fight” was the word Lampard kept using when describing the performance in reflection, which might be more of Lampard’s humble nature rising to the surface. It was much more than a scrap, this was a performance of class, of skill, of flair, of artistry, of youthful exuberance – but most vitally, of tactical intelligence.
Mourinho’s credentials to still compete at the top of the game have been questioned by his critics for how the game has evolved in recent years. The midfield destroyers of Eric Dier and Moussa Sissoko were perfect back in 2014 when it was Nemanja Matic and David Luiz – or John Obi Mikel. However Spurs midfield didn’t look resolute, it appeared stationary against the dynamism of Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante – all whose footballing ability eclipses just their execution of a tackle.
To succeed in 2019, edging closer to 2020 – attacking is far much more effective and Jose watched on as young players like Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori put in displays of intelligence years beyond their age. Displays which would have garnered Mourinho’s love in the past – even if we all know they would be shunned from ever getting a look into first team matters.
The scenes of celebration at the end shows how special Lampard’s tenure can be for the club, even in his brief spell so far – this was the biggest victory, a landmark moment which proves Chelsea are moving in the right direction under a coach who prefers to look forwards, instead of back.
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